EARLY IN SEPTEMBER, on several thousand college and university campuses across the country, the president or dean inflicts upon his recently arrived (and, therefore, still good-humored) student body and faculty a welcoming oration. Academic tradition demands that the talk address itself to a mix-and-match assortment of themes such as the following ones: the purposes of Education (a capital "E" view from the administration building), the state of higher learning in the nation (or world) and the fearsome snares that await feckless students during the year ahead.

The basic 1981 model convocation speech undoubtedly will allude also to the perils of excessive undergraduate preference for "vocational" courses and consequent devaluation of traditional liberal arts offerings; the institutional perils posed by inflation in all its guises--energy costs, faculty salaries and student grades; and those annual disturbers of academic peace since the 1960s, the intricate problems of governing colleges and universities.

Indications are that most convocation addresses (Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti's vigorous attack on the Moral Majority being the exception) will reflect the prevailing mood of campus self-absorption and, therefore, stress internal educational themes, not--as in recent decades--national or global issues. Few knowledgeable observers of the academic scene in America would quarrel with David Riesman's point that the social experimentation (and, occasionally, adventurism) prevalent in the universities until recently has been replaced by an era of "pedagogic protectionism." All three "estates" of higher education--students, faculty and administration--now pursue their separate goals within the same university walls but, often, lacking either mutual understanding or sympathy.

Not only on the campuses but in the nation at large, our current 18-to-21-year-olds, students and non-students alike, have no firmly grounded generational identity. Such an identity is that sense of historical location that derives from either an awareness of--or involvement in--the defining public arguments of an era. "To be excited by the same dispute, even on opposing sides, is to be alike," wrote the historian Marc Bloch. "This common stamp, deriving from common age, is what makes a generation."

Where is the new student generation today? Try provoking a serious argument on the campuses over the most bitter disagreements of a decade ago: Vietnam, for example, or Watergate, or "movement" politics on a range of causes and "life styles." The generation of the 1980s, which takes its collective seat at the academic table this month, has yet to identify its quarrels and perspectives. The wiser and more wizened among college and university presidents recognize that fact and discount accordingly the deceptive moment of calm that now exists in the transition from one academic generation to another. For that reason alone, the most interesting question confronting the leaders of American education this September may well be not how their students will perform in the years ahead but--more basic still--who they are.